Hi, how are you?

How many times do you walk into an elevator and purposely avoid eye contact with the people inside? Do you consciously look the other way when sprinting past a fellow jogger on your lonely early morning trail? How about your next-door neighbor when you’re taking out the trash? Or the taxi driver when you’re hurriedly sliding into the cab and stating your destination? How many times a day do you make an conscious effort to ignore the unnamed people around you?

This habit of pretending others don’t exist and carrying on immersed in our own busy-ness has become so deeply ingrained in the very makeup of our current urban existence that we don’t even think twice about it. We don’t acknowledge another human being’s presence even within two feet of us, much less think about giving them a smile, a hello, asking them how their day is going. A lot of this has to do with the way we’re living our rat race, completely consumed with thoughts of ourselves, our worries, our problems. We are the center of our universe. There is simply no time to say hi when we’re running from one task to another, our minds occupied with our overflowing to-do list, our endless appointments and infinite obligations, our ongoing responsibilities. The twenty-four hours we have in a day barely suffices to do everything that must be done, and yet, in the middle of this incredibly important (and stressful) checklist, I have the audacity to insinuate that we must take time to stop, look a stranger in the eye, and say hello to them? Well, it’s really not as outrageous as one might believe.

I have lived almost all of my life in big cities. I spent my growing years in Jakarta, my college days in Boston, and my working life in New York City and Singapore. It was from one urban jungle to another. Don’t get me wrong – I loved all the vibrant flavors of these cities, and they will always hold a dear place in my heart. They taught me so many different lessons, but interestingly, none of them taught me the skill of welcoming another into my space. Instead, they conditioned me to tighten up, wrap myself in a protective layer, and look at the world with wary eyes. Of course this was not without reason – the urban landscape is filled with hazards, both human and non-human, that it becomes instinctive for the urbanites to defend themselves. When someone who has acclimatized their public behaviors to such conditions is suddenly met with the complete opposite of what they have been used to, it is shocking to the internal system.

But it is shocking in the most wonderful of ways. And I know, by first-hand experience.

The state of Nebraska (USA) opened my eyes to one of life’s basic necessities – taking a moment to stop and say hello.

I moved there as a married woman, to the Midwestern state of “The Good Life”, wondering how different life was going to be for a city-bred individual as myself. I didn’t think I would learn anything significant in the “middle of nowhere” after having lived such dynamic lifestyles, but… I was wrong.

The good-natured Nebraskans taught me a very simple, but oh-so-important, lesson: it is okay to smile, say hi, and ask a stranger how their day is going. It is okay to look into their eyes and welcome them into your world, even if just for that moment. It is okay to greet one another, whenever, wherever, however. It is okay to inquire about each other, to ask not just for the sake of asking, but to ask because you actually want to care.

This was something radically new to me. Initially, it seemed superfluous. A waste of time. Do these people not have something better to do with their time? Are they bored? Are these just “social niceties”? Do I actually have to respond?!

Well, I started responding. I answered their questions, I asked them the same. They replied, I replied, and we started talking. The conversations wouldn’t last long – probably as long as it took the Walmart cashier to ring up my purchases, or as long as it took the public librarian to check out my books, or as long as it took the playschool coordinator to let my little toddler out – but those few minutes were so… pleasant. And the simple agreeableness of the exchange made me smile, made them smile, and then we went about our own ways. We slipped back into our busy world, filled with tasks and responsibilities, but a world that suddenly seemed nicer, friendlier, and happier.

That was it. A few minutes of me sharing my world with another person in a respectable and friendly manner gave a coat of instant contentment to my day.

The little things make the biggest impact, don’t they? It is surprising the warmth that a simple hello to a fellow stranger will illicit within ourselves when we look up, meet their eyes, give them a smile, and invite them for a quick interaction. We can stop at a hello and continue on our way, or we can linger a little bit and ask them how they’re doing. We can exchange a few more words, a question on how their day is going, an innocent comment about the weather, or a joke about the latest scandal splashed all over the newspapers. The length of time we spend talking to a complete stranger is up to our discretion, but that initial greeting will do wonders for our spirit. Sure, you’re bound to bump into a grumpy few who will ignore your efforts (some might even frown at having their “space” invaded), but trust me, they are few and far between. If we can drop our inhibitions, we will be pleasantly surprised at the humane connections we can make, just with a simple hi.

After all, humans are social animals; we exist within the paradigm of a society/community so we can securely behave within the social constructs we have built around and within us. We will never tire of human interaction because the heart has no limits to how many souls it can welcome inside. The cynical indifference that there is no point in smiling and acknowledging a stranger, thinking they will probably turn the other way and just reject our gesture, is an irrational fear. It has evolved into an uncomfortable truth in today’s world only because we have made it true with our appallingly uninterested behavior to each other as human beings. Such a form of forced non-interaction is innately false. Underneath the pretentious (and largely defensive) exterior, we are all craving for a connection, a smile, even a small nod of the head, just about anything to remind each other that we’re all living, breathing beings occupying the same shared space on this earth.

Well, give it a try. Step outside of your box, shake off the shackles, and look a stranger in the eye. Drop the invisible barriers you have cushioned around yourselves, break down the defensive walls, and peek through the opening. Muster up the courage and respectful effort to say hi to him/her/them.

You will be surprised that your little world will suddenly seem a bit brighter, a bit rounder, and a whole lot bigger… all because you let someone in, even if just for a moment.

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42 thoughts on “Hi, how are you?

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  1. Beautiful essay! I love the message, Sindhuja.

    I grew up in a small town of 2,000 or so people. It would have been unthinkable to pass someone on the street without saying hello — even if they were a stranger. That sort of thing contributed greatly to the sense of community people shared, and it might even have helped create an atmosphere in which you could, for instance, expect help from complete strangers if your car were broken down on a lonely road.

    I eventually moved to Colorado Springs, and my older brother moved to Chicago. He once asked me how I knew so many people in the Springs. I told him the Springs is merely an over-grown small town. You simply sit in a coffee shop and wait for strangers to say hi. It might take a few weeks, but sooner or later, you know a dozen, then two dozen, and so on.

    He responded that would never happen in Chicago. And I agree with him. I lived there for about three years. The people are cold and rude and until you get to know them, and getting to know them can be hard.

    By the way, I was talking with my therapist about the blogging world, and I happened to mention you in connection with the more thought provoking bloggers I read. That led to my asking him how to pronounce your name. Arun is from India, so he readily knew how to pronounce it. I didn’t realize until then what a beautiful name you have. It sings. Or am I mistaken that your name is of Indian origins?

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you, Paul, for the insightful comment (as always)! You’re absolutely right – the residents of smaller towns and areas are much more willing to say hello and share their worlds with others, but people in big cities are too caught up in their own bubbles to give any one else a second glance. Having grown up in big cities most of my life, it became my operative norm… until I moved to Lincoln, Nebraska. It made me realize that the feeling of community is only evoked when we start looking at each other in the eye and start connecting as individuals. 🙂

      Your therapist is from India? I’m also a counsellor/therapist and psychologist-in-training myself.

      My name is indeed of Indian origin. And thank you for the compliment. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I knew you were a counselor/therapist, but not that you were a psychologist in training. I hold those occupations in high esteem since they pretty much saved me from a life of being tossed hither and yon by depression.

        Arun is from a city of about 10,000 in the South of India. He originally came to the US to get his doctorate in Chemical Engineering. But he realized that the work wasn’t satisfying him — he needed to do something with people. So he got his masters in Social Work and went into therapy.

        I had to go through five or six therapists to find him. This is an Evangelical town, and most of the therapists describe themselves as “Christian therapists” — which in practice means they respond to just about every issue with, “You’re not right with Jesus”.

        I’ve been with Arun now for a dozen or more years. The depression is well managed, and in a sense, I don’t need him anymore. But I prefer to keep seeing him monthly on the grounds he’s like an insurance policy — if the depression ever comes back, he’s already up to speed on me and what it will take to vanquish it.

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      2. Sounds like you and Arun have done (and continue to do) some good work. 🙂 I’m happy to hear about the difference therapy/counselling has made in your life. I strongly believe in the curative process of talking to a professional and getting help to rebalance our mental health. Everyone needs it, in some form or another. I was drawn to this field purely because I wanted to help people, in any way, to find ways to survive, and then eventually to thrive. I believe in the necessity of optimal living, however each individual defines it for himself/herself.

        (Who would have thought a finance professional like myself would have ended up also wanting to pursue counselling/therapy?! Personal experiences can help you take some eye-opening detours in life.)

        By the way, coincidentally, like Arun, I’m also originally from South India. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      3. I like your thrive approach. I consider the highest attainable goal for a human — short of enlightenment — to be self-flourishing in an environmentally and socially responsible way. That seems to jive with “thriving”.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I can so relate to your post. I learnt the same things from Texans that you did from Nebraskans. But I also have to state here that our Indian small towns and villages do extend that kind of acknowledgement but its the cosmopolitan urban crowd, where it’s missing.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I used to feel that I had to ignore people since everyone else did, but it really bothers me, so I often smile at people when I see them. I’m in a large city and a lot of people are baffled by this, but some people appreciate it. I’m not at the level of starting conversations, but I’d like to try that at some point.

    I remember reading an insightful comment a few years ago on xoJane explaining the coldness of city people. It said that people don’t have physical space in cities, so they try to maintain their psychological space. I try to be sensitive to this, so I fluctuate between being stone-faced and silent and sunshiny and smiley.

    I’ve been to smaller cities and was shocked when I stepped into a coffee shop and realized that strangers were having conversations with each other! And they all knew the owner! Even though it feels shockingly unfamiliar, it really is a lovely.

    At the end of the day, I feel like I get the best of both worlds as a friendly person in a big city. I can engage with people when I want to, but if I’m not feeling up to it, no one thinks I’m rude!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for offering your perspective on this. There is much truth in preserving psychological space; I know I often felt that way when I lived in those bigger cities. And, as you rightly said, I don’t think we can blame people for wanting to stay within their bubble and inside their own space, because they have a right to, of course, but it sure is nice when they are ready to open up and engage with others too. Too much of anything can’t be good either – I would hate to feel obligated to smile and say hello to every stranger I cross paths with! I think feeling choiceless in the matter would take the joy out of it. One must always be given the option to choose. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Paul, for linking to me! I love that you expanded on what I was talking about here in your own blog. It’s an important topic to discuss, because as much as the world feels like it’s getting smaller (all of us being technologically connected in ways we never were before), we are also more isolated in many ways.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Enjoyed reading your post and the comments Sindhuja. What we write takes a lot of other dimensions when there are so many comments to it.
    This is one reason why I love walking in the public park, going to the library and other places. The “Hi, how are you doing today” changes my world for a few seconds. It is such a nice thing to do. Thank you for reminding the importance of that small gesture.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed the post and comments! My favourite part of blogging is being able to share my thoughts with others AND receive such value-added comments. The discussion brings out so many more points and perspectives to ponder, which I love. 🙂

      I’m happy to hear you’re able to get a lot of these small gestures at the park and library! Makes the world a nicer place, doesn’t it?

      Liked by 1 person

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